The Guesthouse in KillarneyYears ago my wife Meg and I dragged my sister Heide all around the west coast of Ireland; Heide enjoys this kind of treatment. On this day we had been up since the crack of dawn. It was late, we were tired, our brains were overflowing with the memories of beautiful scenery and our stomachs were empty: It was time to look for some food and a place to sleep. Unfortunately, every other visitor travelling in that part of Ireland had had the same idea - only sooner - so when we finally pulled up outside a nice looking place it was as fully booked as all the others we had tried.
We must have been a pitiful sight because the landlady said: "Why don't you come on in and have dinner here? I'll try and find you a place to stay while you eat".
Could you have resisted such an offer?
The food was as wonderful as the landlady and it was well past nine when we finally asked her if she had managed to find us a bed for the night.
"Well", she said, "I have a friend down the road who does bed and breakfast". There was a slight hesitation, then: "I don't know what her place is like, but she has plenty of room."
We didn't wonder why yon place had plenty of room when all the others were crammed to the rafters; we thanked the kind woman and asked her to book two rooms. We paid for the excellent dinner and set out to face the final adventure of the day: Little did we know that the adventures were only just starting!
The place was hard to find and by the time we got there it was way past eleven. The night was dark, with only a sliver of a crescent moon when we finally pulled up outside an old Georgian mansion high up on a hill. Old trees bordered the surrounding fields, dark fences and sheds showed that this had once been a farm.
There was no outside light and the windows were as dark as the house - which looked so spooky and mysterious that we couldn't wait to see if the inside lived up to the promise of the outside. As we knocked on the door a lonely owl hooted 'Good luck - good luck'. Combined with the murmur of the rustling trees and a distant screech from some other well meaning night time animal it was quite a show!
While we waited, Heide whispered: "This place is so spooky, it could be right out of an Agatha Christie novel. All we need now is a creaky voiced old lady opening the door asking: 'What do you want?'"
My romantic sister had barely pronounced this prophecy when the door opened on ancient hinges, revealing the outline of a bent little lady.
"What do you want?", she asked in her best Agatha Christie voice, "you better be the people who booked for the night?!"
Suppressing a shudder we assured her that we were and followed her into the dark house. I know now that we should have turned on the spot, climbed one of the trees and spent the night in its comfortable branches - but we went right in all the same.
The entrance hall was so dark, it was difficult to judge its size. There was a grand staircase somewhere and I saw the shadows of some old furniture. What little light there was came from the glowing eyes of a life sized Jesus statue: The most aggressive Christ I have ever seen in my entire life. His electric eyes followed you everywhere and would have dominated the entrance hall if it hadn't been for an enormous stuffed grizzly glowering out of the far corner - paws raised in a vicious swipe and eyes glowing with an even larger wattage than those of the famous Judean.
Those two scared the willies out of me!
Somewhat stunned, we looked around the room in silence.
What sort of place was this?
Could it be the temple of some unknown religious cult?
Did it perhaps belong to a big game hunter? This would explain the glowing grizzly, but how do you bag a Jesus?
As our eyes got used to the gloom we spotted some bric-a-brac along the walls. A few moth eaten carpets led to a rather magnificent fireplace and shadowy outlines of mounted animal heads on the walls indicated that the local wildlife had fared no better than the bear or its ancient opponent.
Those two really took your breath away, no matter how long you looked at them. I couldn't avert my eyes until I stumbled over some other trophy - cunningly nailed to the floor. A dead sheep or a live tiger, no doubt.
The old lady gestured towards some doors. We followed her to inspect our accommodation. Heide and the old lady shuffled into the gloom and Meg and I examined what lay beyond our door.
It was - different.
The room held two pieces of furniture: A huge double bed and a massive built-in wardrobe that filled the entire back wall.
The bed had a mattress which was at least a hundred years old. It had the shape of an Alpine valley, surrounding mountains, goatherd and all. In the middle - roughly where the village graveyard would have been - was a huge sagging bulge which looked as if a very heavy man had died there some decades ago and had only been removed very recently.
The wardrobe was enormous. What wood the worms had left looked like oak. There were dozens of doors and drawers - all hard to open and containing nothing. Every time I forced one open - and I examined them all - an ancient smell wafted into the room that reminded me of the vaults in Speyer cathedral, where the dead are more than a thousand years old. Was the body of that Alpine goatherd hidden in here somewhere? Was he dead? Was he alive? Could you smell the difference?
The final drawer revealed a touching brochure extolling the virtues of a traditional Irish bed and breakfast guest house. This told me that at least one other - forgetful - guest had stayed here. Had he survived or was this his bulge in the bed? Was he the smell in the wardrobe? Was he from Austria?
Next we tested the bed.
A dromedary lying upside down - balancing a duvet on its clumpy hoofs - might just about have managed to get a peaceful night's rest in this contraption, but no human frame would ever twist into a matching shape - we gave up after only a few seconds and studied the problem whilst thoughtfully rubbing our aching backs.
We needed sleep, so I pushed the bed to one wall and hauled the mattress onto the creaking floor. That did it for most of the valley. We lay down and had a restless night's sleep, often disturbed by strange sounds coming from the inside of the house. In odd moments of slumber I dreamed of ancient Christians fighting a deadly battle against an army of glowing eyed grizzlies in a huge arena shaped like a wardrobe - but even in my dream I knew that this was nonsense.
The morning found us stiff and tired - a feeling made worse by the labours involved in getting the bed back to its original state.
That mattress was heavy!
"From now on it can only get better" I thought and
looked forward to
a nourishing Full Irish Breakfast - usually a delicious collection of
edibles not necessarily healthy, but at least as large as yon Alpine
mattress. When we met my sister she looked exhausted. Apparently her
room was beside the toilet and a succession of strange and confused
people had mistaken the door of the one for the door of other all night
long. This had obviously encouraged Heide's tidy mind to doubt the
freshness of the air in her room. She went to the window and tried to
open it - but failed. No tugging, tearing or torturing would budge that
ancient construction of Georgian wood. On closer examination she found
that - years ago - somebody had actually come along and nailed the
window shut. No wonder it wouldn't budge!
What a house!
This is when we decided that all this was so funny, we would never forget our visit to this place, no matter how long we lived; so we might as well enjoy the rest of our stay. We started to looked forward to breakfast with a strange mixture of wistful foreboding and delicate dread. We were not to be disappointed: The breakfast turned out to be a magnificent crescendo in the finale of an already over-orchestrated symphony.
A good Irish breakfast consists of orange juice, cereal, fried eggs, fried bacon, fried sausages, tea, toast, butter and marmalade; often potato and/or soda bread and anything else that is likely to lead to an early heart attack thrown in for good measure. A really good Irish breakfast will last you till night time, though it probably shortens your life by several hours or possibly years.
Ours started with some thinned down orange juice and the expected toast and butter; there was some very good tea. As we sat there munching, a peculiar looking dog waddled into the breakfast room. It was hard to make out whether it was a poodle or a doberman because it was enormously fat. So much so that one wondered how any sane human being could feed a poor creature to reach such a circumference: Enter the old lady carrying a jug of fresh milk.
While we poured the milk over our cereal and tried to get a crackle out of the tired cornflakes old Agatha tried to make polite conversation:
"The vet was here yesterday" she confided, "and all the cows have mastitis."
Happily ignoring our stunned silence she continued triumphantly: "But one of them is fine. They had to remove half of her udder, but the rest is all right"
That udder made us shudder, but we were so busy trying to figure out what 'mastitis' might be to worry much about the cow. Was the old woman mad or was she having us on?
Time for the sausages. We were still in the middle of discussing what 'mastitis' might be and had just come to the conclusion that it must be bad - though very difficult to translate into German - when we were presented with a large plate of bacon, a few greasily fried eggs and an army of evil looking sausages.
I took one look at these suspicious looking objects and knew that I was not going to risk my life again. The others came to a similar conclusion. The old lady left the room and stumped into the farm yard: we could see her through the window navigating a years's worth of natural fertilizer with that peculiar wading gait farmers seem to acquire at birth.
Rather than wait and return the offending sausages - if such they were - I decided to feed them to the dog. Generations of guests must have done the same thing, because Meg and Heide gave me a look that said: "What a good idea" and followed my example instantly. So that's how the creature got so fat! At least one fact made sense today!
Old Agatha returned suddenly from the yard and called for the dog. We had to grab hold of the creature because it had three sausages hanging out of its mouth and couldn't swallow fast enough to destroy the evidence in time.
Not having drunk the milk and having selflessly fed the sausages to the pooch we were still pretty hungry. However; what was left of our appetite evaporated totally when the lady of the house made her final glorious entry and announced to the house, in a resigned, but strangely proud voice:
"I've just been out in the yard! Now the cow has caught mastitis on the other half of the udder too".
We paid and fled.